There are many questions that burn inside of audio designers. You can hear us wailing and gnashing our teeth. Why didn’t I check the expiration date on that bologna? Why did I continue eating it after realizing that it had gone bad? Why isn’t audio involved from the beginning?
I’d like to address that last one. It’s the easiest one to answer of the bunch, really. The first two, those are the tough ones. No need to stir up controversy with those first two.
I should mention that I don’t have scientific evidence to answer this question from an analysis of hard data. But I have observed some stuff over the years. Also, I can say that I work at a place where audio developers are involved from the beginning, or, we are at least invited and encouraged to be involved from the beginning. It didn’t come without some effort on everyone’s part.
I think the first step towards figuring out why audio isn’t involved from the start is to ask ourselves why other people wouldn’t want to involve us. We have to be honest with ourselves when we ask this question. And we need to be fair to people who we may not understand.
It’s easy to point fingers at others. Some people don’t see past the audio label to see the whole human being with an entire life of experiences. Some see us coming in at the end of a project and can’t fathom how we’d function at the beginning. And there are some who just couldn’t give two craps about audio at all.
Bad news time, though. All of that stuff points right back to us. And we’re not going to make any progress until we can acknowledge that this is our responsibility. The issues above that seem like they’re about other people are really about us.
The easy part is explaining how we can contribute audio early on. We can talk to our colleagues and the leaders of our companies about ideas we have for early phases of development. Things like providing music for the team to work to that fits the style of the game, or placing evocative music to key pieces of concept art, or creating prototypes of new audio systems, or filling test levels with sound and music, or recording temporary voice for mission prototypes, and so on forever and ever for as long as we’re willing to experiment. We know this, and we need everyone else to know it, too.
Showing is better than talking, though. We can’t just talk. We can’t expect other disciplines to provide us with a bunch of work so early in the project. We don’t need them to, either. That’s exactly the perception that we’re fighting. We need to stand on our own two feet and show how we can add to the project from the very start. We dig for information and then we start doing stuff.
We need to have skills outside of audio. Often the absolute beginning of a project brings a scarcity of support. We can’t always expect lots of help in proving out our ideas. We need the ability to do it ourselves, which might involve level design, gameplay scripting, interactive fiction, interpretive dance, woodworking, honestly whatever tools we can use to express our ideas without needing other peoples’ time. Self sufficiency can mean the difference between being involved or not, since it’s just one person being added early on and not a more costly cadre of people.
We need to show results quickly, too. Things change quickly early in the project. Things can become irrelevant over the course of 48 hours as the teams explore possibilities. If we’re going to keep the pace, we need to be adept at quick sound design that gets the point across.
We also have to prepare to waste a bunch of work. Wasted work is a pretty dreaded thing during production and post-production. It’s going to happen in the early phases. Like, a lot. And that’s okay. Most of what everyone else is doing is going in the dustbin, too. Work in parallel with artists and designers and don’t wait for their stuff to be final. If timing or some other variable changes and it’s worth fixing the sound, then you’ll fix the sound.
I realize that sometimes we are understaffed in audio personnel. We’re already sweaty and overworked and in desperate need of some family time, and it can seem impossible to find time to involve ourselves in another project this early when we already have our hands full. But let me just suggest that one unexpected, meaningful contribution early in the project can be all it takes to convince the team that they need us. This might be good justification to hire.
My soapbox is caving in. There’s more to say but you’ve probably already finished your morning coffee and are ready to move on. If you have any other ideas or anything to say on the matter, I’d love to hear from you. You can leave a comment or contact me directly.